October 2006

Nonprofit Technology Staffing Survey

Do you want to know if you're making what you're worth? Do you want to know what other organizations are doing in the realm of nonprofit technology staffing? Don't we all? Now's your chance!

Take the NTEN staffing survey, at http://www.nten.org/itstaffing to help us all understand what technology staffing for the sector looks like.

It's the last day to take the survey. Do it! Now!

TOMORROW: Ten Common Mistakes in Selecting a Donor Database Online Seminar

It's your last chance to register for the Ten Common Mistakes in Selecting a Donor Database (And How to Avoid them) - this online seminar is TOMMORROW - Wed, Oct 24th at 11:00 Pacific time. View more or register now at www.idealware.org/online_seminars/

Are you trying to find the right donor database for your organization? Robert L. Weiner will walk through ten common mistakes that can prevent you from selecting the right database and managing it effectively. Robert, the host of TechSoup's Technology for Fundraising online forum, has been helping nonprofits select database software for more than ten years. He'll expand greatly on his article of the same name to provide many practical tips and techniques to allow you to choose a database that's great for you.

The webinar, part of the NTEN and Idealware Software Review Series, is $60 for NTEN members or Idealware eNews subscribers, or $100 otherwise (hint: it's free to register for Idealware enews). View more or register now at www.idealware.org/online_seminars/

Today’s Debate Question: What’s an Open API?

In N-TEN’s “Great Open API Debate” on Friday, the panelists were all in agreement: Open API’s are great, they’re the wave of the future, everyone should be using them, offering them, building them. Now there’s just one small point of clarification: what’s an Open API?

This debate is in serious need of some definitional clarity. How open does open need to be? What’s the difference between an API and an Open API? What’s the difference between offering access to data and an API? Without a definition as to what is or is not an Open API, it’s hard to do a reality check when all the vendors say they're already offering one, or will have one soon.

Allan Benamer (of the Confessions of a Nonprofit IT Director blog) has helped me out with some thoughts on what it should take to be an Open API from a data perspective. Let’s call them the Four Pillars of Open APIs. Each aspect is useful on its own, but with all four you get the Open API gold star.
  1. Uses open standards. The application can give me data that other applications can read, and I can access it using a language that other people use
  2. Supported and documented. I can figure out how to use the API
  3. Access to all user inputted data. I can get out via API all the data my organization and my supporters put in.
  4. Free (or at least fairly priced). I don’t have to sell my unborn child to access the API

What do you think? And stay tuned for more from Allan.

Forming networks around technology needs

Beth Kanter has posted an interesting, quick interview with Christopher J. Mackie from The Andrew Mellon Foundation, from the Technology in the Arts Conference. They talk about the issue of nonprofits keeping up to speed in technology and how difficult it is. Mr. Mackie had some interesting comments that really resonated for me:

Beth Kanter
You mentioned the difficulty of people who work in nonprofits and arts organizations keeping up with the technology – it’s just so difficult and time consuming. What’s your advice around that?

Christopher J. Mackie
I think the biggest thing to think about in terms of keeping up is that even people like me - who are paid more or less full time to keep up - can’t keep up on our own. We depend heavily on networks. You should be depending heavily on networks. There are people like you in other organizations around the country and around the world. The key is to find the people who sit in seats like yours, who see the world the way you see it, who have organizations that are close enough to yours to be relevant but different enough that the diversity actually adds value to you. And then…figure out ways to keep in touch with them and to share ideas and share insights and share links to new developments - so you’re leveraging your own investment of time and energy with the investment of all the other people in your network.

I think this is right on - but also, well, easier said than done. Conferences are certainly a great way for those interested in technology to meet others interested in technology, but what about the huge majority of nonprofits who have no one focused on technology, or who's technologists are struggling just to keep the computers running, let alone reach out to others and share ideas? How can we support their expansion of knowledge and personal networks?

And in practice, organizations that are similar in some aspects are different than others. Perhaps another organization has a similar philosophy on outreach, and we can share a lot of best practices about communications and engaging the audience. However, if I look at accounting software, there's no reason to suspect that same organization is also similar to me in financial setup. So in reality we're talking about a number of different networks that overlap and change over time. There's no question that a great nonprofit technologist should be seeking out and developing these networks. But how many are allowed the time or have the skills to do this effectively?

Idealware is in fact my answer to these issues. I feel strongly that many organizations are "close enough to yours to be relevant" when you're looking at specific technology solutions. If you're looking for, say, a tool to manage your member data and member related functions, there is a pretty finite number of core needs. There will be a few organizations whose needs are way different than the mainstream, but the large majority of organizations will fall into maybe four to six different types when it comes to this specific area. And thus by researching the needs of organizations, understanding the software offered, and writing a report that addresses the concerns of these particular organizational types, we can address the core needs of the majority of organizations - shortcutting each individual nonprofit’s process of understanding what's working for other organizations.

No, it's not as good as a strong, individually formed network of like-minded organizations. But these reports would be a lot better than nothing for the vast number of nonprofits who don't have those networks. And by forming a community around these reports, with online and real-time discussion, we can also help to create the networks that will help with other technology needs down the road.

New articles: Choosing Bulk Email Software, and Using Social Networking to Prevent Genocide

The October Idealware articles are up!

Heather Gardner-Madras brings us a great overview of the features that are important for three types of emails that nonprofits typically send, in Choosing Bulk Email Software to Match Your Communication Goals. She even created a visual guide to email types and features, which is available here as a PDF.

And Ivan Boothe shares the Genocide Intervention Network’s experience with social networking tools like MySpace and FaceBook in his article Using Social Networking to Stop Genocide. This detailed case study offers a great look at what one organization is actually doing with these tools, how they work, the commitment necessary, and the results they're seeing.

Let Out Your Inner Shakespeare – Write For Us!

Do you enjoy writing? Or do you have friends who do?

We’re looking for volunteer writers to help with Idealware articles. No specific technology knowledge is necessary – we’ll team you up with nonprofit technology experts who will provide the expertise, tips, techniques and examples for great articles.

All those who help get a byline, bio, a link to their site, the opportunity to talk with top nonprofit technologists, and the warm and fuzzy feeling that you’re helping nonprofits nationwide (and even world-wide) be more effective through software.

Pass the word on to your friends and colleagues!

Interested? Email Laura at laura@idealware.org.

Resource Roundup

Apparently, October is a big month for nonprofit technology research and articles, as there's been a lot of great ones just in the past week or so...

The Software is Only Good if the Email Gets Through (Dr. DigiPol)
Alan Rosenblatt provides a good summary of the recent CapWiz report on the success rate of vendors who provide features to automatically email Congress, it's potential methodological issues, and how it fits into the broader strategic issues.

Web 2.0: More than a Buzzword, but not Easily Defined
(Pew Internet)
A welcome researchers' perspective on what "Web 2.0" might mean, in the much larger context of the internet

Using Mobile Phones in Electoral and Voter Registration Campaigns (MobileActive)
Does mobile phone technology fit under Idealware's "software" mandate? Who knows, but check out this great guide anyway, which is chock full of practical tips and examples from the field.

Ten Commandments of MySpace Advocacy
(M&R; Strategic Services)
A practical guide on how to succeed with MySpace.

Online Office Software Feature Matrices (IT Redux)
Looking for online office productivity applications? IT Redux presents an incredibly detailed list of applications, such as bookmarking, calendaring, databases, faxing, and way more, by category and with a summary of key features for each.

Google Releases Google Documents (Google)
Google absorbs their puchase of Writely and spins it into their own online word processing tool, Google documents.

Screensharing Tools and Technology (Kolabora)
A fantastic guide to applications that will allow you to show your desktop to others remotely. It covers typical features and then summarizes 25 different screensharing tools.

Results of Linux desktop tests (East of England FOSS)
An informal write-up of the results of a pilot, in which an organization gave out desktop computers running Ubuntu Linux to ten nonprofits. Interesting, but I wish an unbiased third party would have been involved in summarizing the feedback...

Judi Sohn: A Nonprofit’s Implementation of Salesforce.com (Office 2.0 Podcast Jam)
A long and detailed podcast interview about the Colorectal Cancer Coalition’s implementation of Salesforce.com for fundraising and donor management, with some great insights on why CCC chose Salesforce and how it works for nonprofits.

The Great API Debate at NTEN
This should be an interesting debate, on Friday Oct 19th, about how vendors are and should be supporting open APIs in their application - and it's free!

What Can We Do With Flickr? (CogDogBlog)
An interactive Flickr post which describes many tangible benefits and lesser known features of Flickr, the photo sharing site (like, for instance, that you can make interactive Flickr posts!)

Taxonomy is Dead, Long Live Taxonomy

I’m really, really tired of people saying that taxonomies are dead, rigid, inflexible, etc, etc, insert your pejorative adjective here. I’ll go as far as to say that I believe that 90% of the people who say these things don’t understand what taxonomies are or how to effectively use them.

The typical premise is that tags make taxonomy obsolete. This is hooey. Sure, tags are really useful. Their particular power is that they are easy for an end-user to apply: just tag your resource with a few tags that make sense to you, and you’re done. This makes them a very cheap way to apply some loose structure to huge data sets. And they support browsing in interesting and really effective ways. Search for “street light” on Flickr, and you get a great collection of photos. It doesn’t really matter than some of them are of lamp posts and some of traffic lights. Or that some of the pictures tagged as “lamp post” may work equally well for your needs. Wanting to see all the lamp post pictures in one place and under one name feels kind of old fashioned and silly. It takes the fun out of it.

But if you’re looking for, say, all children’s services organizations in New York, it’s no longer cute and fun to have a third of these organization categorized as “children’s services”, a third as “child services” and a third as god knows what. Not to mention all those organizations tagged with more detailed children’s services - “children’s legal advocacy” or “foster care” – which can’t be identified or rolled up into children’s services. This is the power of taxonomy (or more technically, a “controlled vocabulary”) – it functions to map similar terms – synonyms, misspellings, etc – together and to allow people to roll terms up to more general ones when needed. Want to actually understand what a controlled vocabulary is? Check out Amy Warner’s great primer.

Somehow “taxonomy” has recently become synonymous with “rigid” and “controlling”. But in fact when a taxonomy (or let’s just call it a “controlled vocabulary” to escape the pejoratives) is used well, it supports a tremendously flexible and user friendly environment. Check out www.gettyimages.com. Try searching on “mom, happy, without dad.” If you’re really serious about finding the best picture for something, Getty supports your search in a way that a tagging system never can.

To get more geeky about it, in information science, the accuracy of a set of results is composed of two pieces: recall and precision. Recall means finding everything that applies to your search term. For instance, if you’re looking for legal precedents, recall is critical – you need to find everything that applies. Tags are by definition bad at recall, as different users will use different terms to describe the same thing. Precision is the flip side of the equation: finding only the most relevant stuff without a bunch of extraneous crap. Tags, well, they’re not great at this either. Likely other users have applied tags in a way that you wouldn’t use them, and you’ll need to look through a lot of irrelevant stuff to find the gold. A controlled vocabulary allows you to weigh precision vs. recall (generally accepted as opposite ends of a spectrum) and tailor the results to meet your users needs.

If you want to allow users to find both all organizations that offer any services for children and all children’s legal advocacy organizations, a well-constructed controlled vocabulary will support this in a way that user defined tags never can. Is a controlled vocabulary more complicated to create? Sure. Does solid categorization through taxonomy likely involve a human administrator and an update process over time? Yes. But greater cost and effort don’t invalidate the concept. While tags support interesting opportunistic browsing, taxonomies allow serious searchers to know they’ve found what they need.

And tags and taxonomies aren’t at each other’s throats, fighting to the death. They’re not conflicting opposites- there’s in fact huge power in using them together. What if end-users tag things, and the tags are mapped into a controlled vocabulary which is used to facilitate search and/or browse for people who want completeness in their searches? In most domains, I would expect that 80- 90% of tags could be predicted in advance, and could be designed into the taxonomy. A human could then map the orphan tags into the vocabulary scheme in an ongoing process, or update the vocabulary to accommodate it. In addition to making the tags much more useful to serious searchers, this would be a great way to test and refine the vocabulary over time.

Of course, a model like this doesn’t make any sense for sites like Flickr or Del.ci.ous, which are intended to support exploration rather than serious searching, and at a scale that makes human intervention infeasible. As Clay Shirkey points out in his article Ontology is Overrated (excellent, but can we make a law that you can’t cite it unless you’ve read it through?), a controlled vocabulary scales poorly to a collection of resources as big and unstructured as, say, the internet.

Sometimes budget or resource limitations will mean that a controlled vocabulary isn’t feasible. But there are a whole lot of collections of resources that are way, way, way smaller than the entire internet or Flickr. For most of these sites, often filled with important and complex resources, a controlled vocabulary model would support users’ needs far better than a Flickr model.

As with most things, there are valid reasons to use either a tagging scheme or a controlled vocabulary. But jumping on the tag bandwagon for your site without carefully thinking about how a controlled vocabulary could help your users is either ignorant or lazy. It’s irresponsible design.

Resource Roundup

An Online Cartoon Campaign from UCS (The Agitator)
A mini-case study highlights an interesting online campaign from the Union of Concerned Scientists: a cartoon contest.

Participatory Media: Who Owns the Work You Share?
(Robin Good)
An excellent overview of the corporate connections and ownership agreements you may be buying into if you're using participatory sites like YouTube and MySpace.

Using Delicious to Share Interesting Websites (iCollaborate)
A detailed case study of the process and benefits of using Del.icio.us to share website links among a team.

Collaboration Tools for Nonprofits (Community Bandwidth)
A great overview of the kinds of software - and specific tools - that nonprofits can use to collaborate remotely.

Change the World by Working in a Virtual One
A great set of interviews with three nonprofit staffers who are advancing their mission through the virtual environment SecondLife.

Share Your Nonprofit's Videos with the World (TechSoup)
An overview of the services you can use to host videos you've created.

Last chance to register for Getting Started with Online Donations

Don't miss the second webinar in the NTEN and Idealware Software Review Series, on Getting Started with Donation Tools, at 11:00 PST tomorrow (Wed). Do you want to help your organization take donations online, but aren't sure how? This session will tell you what you need to know in order to choose a tool and get started. We'll touch on some of the strategic aspects of online donations, but our focus will be on the tactical: What online donation tools are available? How do they work? How do you know which one is right for your organization? We'll close by looking more closely at some of the specific tools that are available.

We'd love to see you there! If you're an Idealware eNews subscriber, you can get the eNews price by chosing "Idealware eNews" from the How Did You Hear drop-down on the registration page.

View more or register now on the NTEN site >